Studs Terkel, sailing along with 'Coming of Age': Take your world-weariness and shove it

October 15, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Louis Terkel was so captivated in the mid-1930s by James T. Farrell's mighty novel of the discontent of concrete-tough urban youth that when he found himself in a squad of other men named Louis, he adopted the moniker of the eponymous Studs Lonigan. (Ah, for the days when you could use the word "moniker" with a straight pen.)

Mr. Terkel was no kid then, and those days were none too palmy. Born in 1912, he got a law degree from the University of Chicago - in the abyss of the Great Depression. With little lawyering to be done, he was plying the actor's trade, in a cast with several other gents named Louis, when he assumed the title "Studs" - with no reference, he claims, to the connotation that automatically would be assumed today.

I broke crab cakes with him the other day, and he bubbled with energy that would put to shame seven out of every eight rock stars I have run across. And beyond sheer, unrelenting physical force, there was as well an immense intellectual vitality, a quality that could well be grounds for prosecution for libel if attributed to a rock star.

The kids, Studs Terkel says, are not alright. Far from it.

As youthful as anyone I know who can ride a bicycle without training wheels, he finds the preponderance of today's youth appallingly uninformed, unambitious, unmotivated and thus dead-on boring.

Principle evil

He is wondrously, wistfully appalled by a lot else that is modern, but all his distastes are based on a blazingly sunny view of the human spirit. Therein lies the power of "Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It" (The New Press. 468 pages. $25), his 10th and latest book, characteristically full of human promise, of possibilities, raging (though very civilly) against one principal evil: Depersonalization. A good book. Buy it. Read it.

As masses of Americans - and Studs Terkel is very American - are depersonalized by machines, electronics, progress, Mr. Terkel, a self-styled "new Luddite" who claims deeply skeptical empathy with the Unabomber, cries out for the importance of all people's capacity to seize and hold their individual destinies. And that demands knowledge and its unrelenting pursuit.

As Patrick Brogan on these pages three weeks ago quoted the book on today's young: "They have no sense of history. What's worse, they don't think it matters. 'Way back then' is a phrase that keeps coming up. They can't imagine fifty years ago. They can't imagine five years ago."

But Mr. Terkel, being a man in love with hope and with stories, cannot give up. In his books, his life, story telling has been and forever shall be the pursuit of truth. He told me one:

A few days before, he said, he was in the Atlanta airport, which has an internal tram railway system extruding people from one set of gates to another. "It has electronic voices," he said with cheery scorn and delicious derision, "computer-generated, inhuman voices.

"We are being told to take this as the high advance of civilization. I got on this tram and the computer voice was saying 'next stop this, that' " he said. Then, a young couple he believed to be on their honeymoon, insouciant and joyful, stopped the door with their hands as it was closing, safely getting in.

The disembodied voice immediately said: "This train is delayed for 30 seconds because of improper tampering with the entrance doors."

Mr. Terkel was indignant. His darkest anxiety, he said, was the sense that an actual live human voice was imitating an electronic one. "Consider the horror of that," he said. "Real humans have ceased to have authority. It has been arrogated by computers."

Eternally the story teller in pursuit of redeeming human truth, he went on. "I had had a couple of martinis," he confided, raising his martini glass. "I cupped my hands." His voice was gaining pace, excitement, acting it out.

"I made the best imitation I could of a computer speaking. 'H.G. Wells is dead,' I announced." (That was intended, the literate might note, to be a readily recognizable reference to "The War of the Worlds.")

Stony silence

There was a stony silence in the tram car. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "That there was such acquiescence, or ignorance. Finally, I went over to a woman who was holding a tiny infant in her arms. 'What do you think of all these people?' I asked the kid." Mr. Terkel looked up from his crab cake. His face glowed with delight. With dramatic emphasis, he spoke: "The baby smiled!" He clearly was satisfied that the smile was knowing recognition of the abounding banality. Hope was restored, the human race again redeemed. And so it goes, with irrepressible optimism for the indomitability of humankind.

Mr. Terkel looks a bit like a cheerful lawn elf, with flaming snow-white hair, an astonishingly young-looking face. He wears his trademark red-and-white checked shirt over a red T shirt, and a crimson sweater on top of all that. (A political expression? Who would ask? Maybe he just likes red.) He presents continuing evidence that age is, or can be, illusion. At 83, he seems indefatigable, irrepressible, and he goes on working, working - for the joy, dignity, necessity of it.

And thus it is pathos, not condescension, that drives him to such harsh judgments of the self-absorbed young. One of my other favorite people on earth is a woman who admits to being 85 and has so much to do, she is too busy doing it all to list the chores and tasks that compel her. Conversely, every day I see people who are exhausted - in their 40s. I know some, in truth, in their teens, already worn out.

Dumb.

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